The demand for clean energy has never been higher, and it has created a global race to develop new technologies as alternatives to fossil fuels. Fuel cells are among the promising green energy technologies. They use hydrogen as fuel to cleanly produce electricity and could power everything from long-haul trucks to major industrial processes.

However, fuel cells are held back by sluggish kinetics in a part of the core chemical reaction that limits efficiency. But researchers from The University of Texas at Austin have discovered new dynamics that could supercharge this reaction using iron-based single-atom catalysts.

The researchers developed a new method to improve the oxygen reduction portion of the chemical reaction in fuel cells, in which O2 molecules are split to create water. They did so through a “hydrogel anchoring strategy,” which creates densely packed sets of iron atoms held in place by a hydrogel polymer. Finding the right formula for spacing these atoms created interactions that allowed them to morph into catalysts for oxygen reduction. Figuring out the density and locational dynamics of these iron atoms unlocks a level of efficiency in this reaction never before realized.

The oxygen reduction reaction is perhaps the greatest impediment to large-scale deployment of fuel cells. The promise of fuel cells lies in the fact that they are nearly limitless in potential applications. They can use a wide range of fuels and feedstocks to provide power for systems as large as a utility power station and as small as a laptop computer.

These findings can be applied to anything that includes electrocatalytic reactions. That includes other types of renewable fuels as well as ubiquitous chemical products such as alcohols, oxygenates, syngas, and olefin.